6 minute read
9 Mar 2021
9:45 am

Repairing Covid-19’s damage to the gender equality progress


While women comprise 39% of the global workforce, they account for 54% of job losses over the pandemic period.

In a recent interview Melinda Gates went as far as to call the pandemic ‘’an emergency for women’’. Picture: Supplied

“Progress made over the last few decades in gender equality is at risk of being rolled back due to the impact of COVID-19. But the pandemic has also forced us all to think differently and given us the opportunity to re-build better – without the power imbalances and gender discrimination of the past.’’ – Anita Bhatia, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, quoted at the P&G and UN Women #WeSeeEqual Summit 20211.

Over the past year, McKinsey2 reported that while women comprise 39% of the global workforce, they account for 54% of job losses over the pandemic period. In a recent interview, Melinda Gates went as far as to call the pandemic “an emergency for women”.

While Covid-19 regressing progress in gender equality was a central theme for the third Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) and UN Women #WeSeeEqual summit, the focus was on what we, as a collective society, can do to keep moving forward.

Globally, the UN reported 70% of health workers and first responders are women, but the gender pay gap in the health sector is 28% – significantly higher than the overall gender pay gap of 16%. This alone demonstrates there is still much work to be done.

The pandemic’s impact on gender equality progress

McKinsey found women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs. Summit speaker, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Anita Bhatia, attributes this to women often working in the social sectors of the economy, plus the burden of unpaid care, which kept many women at home unable to regain entry into the workforce.

She says that while progress is now at risk of being rolled back, there is hope and opportunity. However, we need to act now while we are in the process of rebuilding.  “For this to happen we need to work together with partners, including corporates, governments and civil society.”

So, what can be done?

Mckinsey emphasised that significant investment is needed in education, family planning, maternal mortality, digital inclusion and unpaid care work. This will move the needle for gender equality and for economic growth. While the social spending may be high, the economic benefits of a narrowed gender gap are six to eight times higher than the investment required.

The same finding applied to companies – businesses with executive teams in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability compared to companies in the fourth quarter.

In terms of practical solutions, a few key considerations emerged at the summit:

  1. Actively promoting gender equality at senior levels. Ensuring processes are in place to actively ensure a more representative gender split in senior positions is imperative. Women in positions of power can act as mentors and role models for the next generation and ensure better representation at all levels of decision making. P&G President for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, Magesvaran Suranjan emphasised the importance of this during the summit by reaffirming P&G’ s commitment to achieving a 50-50 gender balance across its management workforce across the region within the next two years, a goal they are well on their way to achieving.
  2. Introducing equal parental leave policies. Employers can assist by providing equal parental leave to empower parents to share responsibility – such as P&G’s new Share the Care policy extending paternal leave options to two months. Introducing flexibility and an output-not-hours outlook would also make a dramatic difference.
  3. Fostering financial inclusion. The pandemic has shifted the paradigm when it comes to working from home. This could present incredible opportunities for more women to be included in the workplace, providing there’s adequate childcare support and improved digital access.
  4. Supporting women-owned enterprises. The pandemic has also prompted the rise of a thriving start-up culture. Corporates can make a big difference by following P&G’s example and deliberately working with women-owned enterprises. The company has pledged to invest USD$200 million with women-owned businesses by 2025.
  5. Addressing unconscious bias. Fama Francisco – CEO of P&G Global Baby and Feminine Care – led a discussion on recruiting in a gender-neutral way. Unconscious bias strips a person of their competence and confidence. Francisco’s philosophy is to always put substance before style. She was once told she was ‘too quiet and too nice to go anywhere in the company’. Her response was defiant – ‘I guess we shall see!’ Now, as CEO, she makes a point of always asking the quietest person in the room their opinion.
  6. Turning and pulling. Tremendous things can happen when women lift other women up. Alex Keith, CEO of P&G Beauty, shared her ‘turn and pull’ philosophy. “When you get through to a position of influence, you turn and pull the women behind you.” Mentorship plays a massive role in this.
  7. Changing attitudes. We need a global attitudinal shift. Empowering more women to work for fair pay is socially and economically beneficial for everyone. Advertising can play a big part. As one of the world’s largest advertisers companies like P&G have a responsibility to use their voice and spend wisely. For example, its Share the Load campaign – which encourages Indian families to teach sons to share household chores – has made marked progress in attitudes. Prior to the campaign, 79% of men thought all chores were for women. Now, that’s changed to 41%.
    The media also has a major role to play. South Africa’s Bonang Matheba, who took part in the summit sharing her insight around using the power of your voice, said that while we have made good progress, we need to see more women equipped with the right tools and knowledge to negotiate deals in the media space. To see more women become media platform owners, rather than just content producers.
  8. Men must step up. Marcus Strobel, President P&G Global Skin & Personal Care, and Standa Vecera, Senior Vice President P&G Japan, both spoke about the role men can play in subverting traditional stereotypes and championing women in the world of work. They talked about the need for strong male role models, safe spaces for men to speak up and share, and actively creating opportunities for men to participate.
  9. Preparing the next generation of women. At grass root level we need to ensure girls receive an adequate education and instil confidence in them moving forward. During the summit P&G declared its intention to continue growing its Always and Whisper ‘Keeping Girls in School Programme’ to reach more than 30 million adolescent girls cross the region over the next three years, with a commitment to reach 125 000 girls through the programme in South Africa alone.